Monthly Archives: January 2009

January 20, 2009

More on art as a social being

A topic to which I have returned several times, I think.

I listened to some jazz today. Usually I get lost listening to jazz because I don’t know whether to listen attentively to every note – attention that usually seems to go unrewarded – or to let it all blend together, in which case it’s just background ambiance and I end up hardly noticing it at all until I realize that the CD is over. Today I was listening to “Kind of Blue,” which I’ve probably heard at least 50 times, if you count Starbucks and Barnes & Noble, and yet have never made it through a single track all the way from start to finish with confidence that I am getting what it’s giving.

But today I did; it fell into a slightly different groove in my attention and made more sense than usual.

In a lot of jazz, (at least “classic” jazz like this) the form is basically A A’ A” A”’… A. That’s a lot less form than the classical music I usually listen to, and even less than pretty much all pop songs, which generally have, at the very least, musically distinct verses and choruses, and frequently B sections and bridges and whatever else. The thing that had been difficult for me about jazz was that it was ostensibly all about virtuosic variety yet was shamelessly, fundamentally unvaried, just rolling around its little circular path of harmonic changes over and over. Those seemed like cross-purposes; I was trying to hear it either as something that surprised me (attending to the ins and outs of the solo lines to no particular avail), or something that didn’t surprise me (pleasantly “jazz-y” sounds for Starbucks), but it claimed to be both.

Today I think this: the real objective and pride of jazz is to maintain a single expressive moment from start to finish, to keep a vibe alive and unbroken. The challenge that the players are meeting as improvisers – the feat that, recognized, is satisfying to the listener – is that they are able to hold that particular vibe, that bodiless and undefinable thing, as their object, and manage to touch and retouch it with their solos. The purpose of the solos is not that they are variations on the theme, nor that they are “a piece he just made up on the spot!” – but that they are elaborations on the “meaning” of the head; they are an exploration of the territory of its emotional life. They are the spirit of the tune disincarnate from its flesh.

This skill of being able to move comfortably within an emotional moment, to really have mastered something as evanescent as a “vibe” and be able to toss it from hand to hand and draw faces on it without popping it, is, it seems to me, a social skill. It’s the same skill exhibited by a social virtuoso. Jazz, I realized, is about “cool” not just by association but by analogue; the form never changes because it is “playing it cool.” No need to rock the boat to have a good time; no need to change the subject, disagree, get too loud, too kind, too cruel, whatever. The measure of social acuity is the measure of how aware one is of the unspoken shared assumptions in the room, how closely attuned to the invisible glowing orb floating over the table formed by the strands emanating from each person. That’s how I picture it anyway.

So of course this ties in to my recurring theme on this site that all art presents itself to its audience as a kind of social encounter, where one is aware, to some degree, of an “other” with whom one has a social relationship. In fact, maybe that’s my great new biological, audience-oriented definition of art, completely disentangled from the notion of “beauty” (which always seemed like a misdirection anyway): art is that in which we subconsciously perceive an “other” even though there is none. Nobody will like this definition, but I kind of do. It means that a table that you are aware of only as a table is not, to you, art, but a table that gives you some impression, any impression, is. Are all impressions necessarily social? Well, yeah, maybe. Isn’t that where belief in God comes from?

Setting that aside, for the moment, this is somewhat less outlandish: People like music because the music seems to them to be a type of person – in the case of jazz, a socially “cool” person who “gets” the room; in the case of rock, a socially charismatic person whose magnetism drives everyone else’s experience (a rock song is the queen bee, the head bad guy, and we listeners are all his shoulder-hanging henchmen, delighted to be associated with him). Classical is more like a storyteller, an orator; it’s what he’s saying, and how he’s saying it, that’s to be enjoyed… But is he a good friend? Like, do we want him coming to dinner with us? He blanches behind his ruff! The feather on his puffy hat droops to hear you suggesting that you would rather “just hang” than listen to his finely honed rhetoric! “Oh? I need to ‘chill out??’ It is your very impertinence that doth chill me, sir!”

That silliness may obscure my point, actually. The point here is that a history of art may really be a history of interpersonal social standards – or social fashions, if you like. Classical Man, from whom we heard just now, wasn’t an oblivious nincompoop in his own time – he was just as socially astute, but attuned to different social fashions. Jazz has become a niche genre, perhaps, because “being cool,” in the sense I mean, is a niche social style nowadays. What’s socially “in” in our society? Fundamental alienation but with wild fantasies of innocent openness, is my one-phrase stab at it. Oh, but now there’s a new thing, this emotionally-underinflected “2.0” nerd-pride pragmatism, the aspirants to which can be recognized by how much they really, really, really like Obama. And more power to them, I say, but they’re not going to want to listen to classical or jazz either. Or they will, but only because they’ve attempted to move past their biological social selves and just accept all culture as equally googlable. They’re probably listening to some Bollywood showtunes/medieval madrigals right now.

I see the appeal in this mindset but find it fraught and ultimately insufficient. If one of these 2.0 people told me they loved me, I would feel uncertain. My life sure doesn’t feel like an Apple Store; can yours really? Where’s the beef, brilliant people whose time is now?

Ugh, I wanted really just to make this be about art as a social “other,” and the history of art being an encoded history of what it was like, socially, to be a human being in various places and times, but I’ve run aground talking about… Facebook or something. So it goes.

I read some guy’s blog the other day where he lamented that writing a blog is basically as difficult and as guarded as writing anything else, except with the added obligation to cultivate the impression that it’s casual and open.

He and I are operating in different paradigms, I’d say.

January 17, 2009

Disney Canon #15: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

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ADAM I didn’t realize that dogs were so ethnic. I think in the fifties, white people’s ethnicity must have been one of the paramount facts about them to other white people, and it’s weird that that was such a staple source of humor.

BROOM You mean the different breeds of dogs? Or the fact that on Monday Tramp goes to the German house, on Tuesday to the Irish house, on Wednesday he goes to the Italian restaurant…

ADAM All of it. Basically all of the characters other than Lady and her owners are characterized exclusively by their ethnicity.

BROOM No. I disagree with that.

ADAM Not everyone, but virtually everyone.

BROOM I disagree with the “exclusively.” The characterizations in the pound were not just ethnic types, They were characterized within ethnic types.

ADAM But they’re stereotypes based on ethnic types. The Russian guy is a crazy philosopher…

BROOM Yes, he’s one of several Russian stereotypes. He’s a particular Russian stereotype. He’s not just “Russian.”

ADAM The Scottie is sort of proud and miserly.

BROOM He didn’t actually have miserly characteristics, did he?

ADAM The first thing you see is him hoarding bones.

BROOM Oh yeah. And singing “Loch Lomond” with lyrics about bones. But Old Trusty wasn’t just an ethnic type.

ADAM Well, “southern” is sort of a stand-in ethnicity.

BROOM Yes, those were elements in their characterizations. But the characterizations were thoroughly worked out for each of these characters. There was the floozy…

ADAM The “lovable slattern.” I liked her. She was one of my favorite characters. She was the floozy with a heart of gold.

BROOM She was Goldie Hawn, as Beth said.

ADAM She was probably the nicest dog, and I thought her face had the most personality.

BROOM You didn’t like the Russian?

ADAM The Russian was a little crazy.

BROOM The bulldog wasn’t an ethnicity, he was just a tough guy.

ADAM He was British!

BETH Yeah, or Australian.

BROOM He might have said “bloke,” but he didn’t have an accent.

ADAM Yes he did! He totally had a British accent.

BROOM I thought he just had mannerisms.

ADAM Really, the only un-ethnic dogs were Lady and Tramp.

BETH Well, the floozy wasn’t.

ADAM You’re right, she didn’t either. She was a recognizable American type.

BROOM But also: what are you saying? I would argue against the claim that that’s all there was to them, but even if it was a big element of the characters – which it obviously was – what’s wrong with that?

ADAM I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a bad thing. And I appreciate that all the dogs had forceful personalities. But it’s just interesting to me that in the fifties it was such a standard go-to move, to base a character on the stereotype of their ethnicity.

BROOM I guess it was a shortcut, if you compare it to Dickens, who can toss off all these characterizations without resorting to ethnic stereotypes, very often. Though he occasionally does.

ADAM He does, a little bit. Smallweed.

BROOM Which one is Smallweed?

ADAM The Jew.

BROOM Right, that’s who I was thinking of. There were no Jews in this. Jews hate dogs.

ADAM This was no Dickens. There were also no blacks. I was thinking we would see a negro dog – like the crows – but no.

BROOM I don’t think there’s any particular reason why not. I think they still would have.

ADAM There’s no “black” dog breed.

BETH I think that’s why. They would have if they had had an African breed of dog.

BROOM Do Scottish Terriers really come from Scotland?

BETH Yeah.

ADAM I mean, initially.

BROOM Do Siamese cats really come from Siam?

BETH Probably no. [Ed: yes]

BROOM I didn’t mind any of that.

ADAM I’m just remarking that you couldn’t do it anymore. That it wouldn’t occur to anyone to do it anymore.

BROOM I think it would occur to Disney to do it, but that’s the one forbidden aspect of what they’re still doing now: “We’re going to have a seagull, what’ll he be like?” “He’ll be a loudmouth and he’ll love nautical stuff!” And if they could, I’m sure they’d add “He’ll be Irish!” They would throw that in, basically because it’s another adjective.

ADAM Beth, following the line of your repeated observation, do you want to talk about the dogcatcher?

BETH What’s my repeated observation?

ADAM About these loutish Irish types.

BROOM Usually I’m the one who brings that up.

ADAM Oh. Well, I wonder when is the last time we’ll see that person.

BROOM I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still at it. The French chef from The Little Mermaid is the broadest possible joke about “A Frenchman!” – still viable in 1989.

ADAM I know, but France is one of the unique countries that it’s still acceptable to mock. And England. But those Siamese cats, who I think are one of the most memorable things about this movie, are shockingly offensive.

BETH It’s very offensive.

BROOM It’s just the buckteeth that puts it over the line.

ADAM And the slant eyes.

BROOM And the fact that they’re vicious interlopers who are going to take away all of our possessions.

ADAM Through means of subterfuge and cunning. Yeah, they were always my favorite thing in this movie. I was surprised that they were only in it for about 90 seconds.

BROOM I think that I have seen that sequence, “Bella Notte,” and “He’s a Tramp” several times as excerpts, and I’ve seen the entirety of the movie only once, or less. But I’d seen the “We Are Siamese” sequence several times. Watching it this time, I was embarrassed to think that there was a time when I had learned those lyrics and sang that song. “I think maybe we will stay for quite a while,” and all. “There will be a head for you, a tail for me?” I learned to say those things in that voice, because that’s how it went, which is retroactively a little embarrassing to me.

ADAM It’s embarrassing for your parents.

BROOM Why? They just embraced it. They didn’t care. Who did? Certainly nobody cared in 1955.

BETH I thought the movie was a lot of fun. I don’t think it was a great piece of filmmaking, but it was solidly entertaining.

ADAM How did it compare to its fifties brethren, in your view?

BETH It’s not as rich as Alice in Wonderland. What else did we just watch?

ADAM Peter Pan. And also Cinderella.

BETH Well, I really don’t think Cinderella is all that great; it’s not as good as any of the ones that came after it.

BROOM Lady and the Tramp felt very slick and modern. I thought, “boy, there’s really no difference between this and the version of it that they would make today.” Not even in tone. Of course, you’re right, they wouldn’t do as much ethnic characterization now.

ADAM They also wouldn’t make the center of the movie be a demure, doe-eyed upper-class girl.

BROOM You’re right, but that’s just because of a current habit they have. If ethnic stereotypes were a reflexive fallback then, a reflexive fallback now is making a female protagonist with “a quirk,” like “she’s clumsy but she’s smart!” Whereas Lady was “naive but rich.” They wouldn’t use that combo now.

ADAM In basically every scene of the movie, I was comparing it to the equivalent scene in Guys and Dolls, which this was sort of the animated version of. And, you know, Guys and Dolls is a lot of fun. This is a little sentimentalized compared to that – it’s not wrong of Bosley to say that this is an overly greeting-card-like movie, if that’s what he says. But it was fun.

BROOM I felt like this movie functioned more than the previous on the level of, “okay, audience, you know what happens in stories like this…”

ADAM Yeah, I knew everything that was coming. You knew that she’d end up at the pound; you knew that there’d be a reversal of fortune at the end; you knew that Old Trusty’s sense of smell would return.

BROOM What I mean is that in Snow White, when, say, she has to run through the scary woods, it’s delivered without any knowingness or acknowledgement that this is a standard trope for this point in the story. Whereas now, in this movie, it felt very relaxed, like it was pitched from and to people who already know. And as a kid, my disinterest in this movie was partially based on the fact that nothing really happened in it. [Ed: didn’t you just say you may never have seen it as a kid?]

ADAM It has an easy, worldly, slightly cynical quality. Which is also Tramp’s personality. It’s saying, “heya, kid, this is the way things are.”

BROOM Even in those sequences, there was no sense of real danger or dirtiness.

BETH Well, I think that kids are supposed to feel that the pound is a dangerous place, where dogs get murdered. But it’s very watered-down. She’s in there! Maybe it will happen to her! But we only have to feel that for about two seconds.

ADAM They tell you within the first ten seconds that her license will protect her.

BROOM They have the power, with animation, to do things that are truly intense, as we’ve seen. And here they didn’t get anywhere near that. You see Tramp fighting with the dogs in silhouette, and then you see them directly, and you think, “yeah, I guess that’s animation of dogs fighting.” But it doesn’t have any menace to it. The whole movie felt very relaxed.

BETH Do you think that has something to do with the way people thought about raising children in the fifties? With Cinderella we were talking about the change in what parents wanted for their children. Parents didn’t want their children to feel fear, so this was as soft as they could make it.

BROOM The emphasis was definitely on softness and light and loveliness, and “look at how beautiful their lawn is!” and “dogs are so adorable, goddammit!” That was basically what the movie had to say.

ADAM I got a strong moralistic and didactic sense from the whole movie. Most basically, it really hammers you over the head with lessons in dog ownership. The messages “license your dog” and “rescue dogs from the pound” were almost Bob Barker-ish in their directness.

BROOM They didn’t say to spay and neuter them. Baby puppies are adorable!

ADAM No, they didn’t. Maybe they hadn’t thought of that yet. And how can you say that in a children’s movie? But also, Tramp presents what is, at least theoretically, an attractive and compelling alternative to her cushy domestic life. And then he totally gives up without a fight! It’s like the opposite of Revolutionary Road.

BROOM The movie doesn’t really have its heart in either option. When he looks out in the distance and says “we could go out there and be free,” they show us that Disney sun shining on it, as if to say, “he’s right, this is paradise!” And then she says, “but I like staying in a house,” and he says, “ohhh-kay.”

BETH What she really says is, “but who will take care of the baby?”

BROOM Right, but we as viewers know that dogs don’t actually take care of babies. Well, of course it turns out that the dogs did need to be there or a rat would have bitten the baby, which is a truly horrific image. It’s a strange threat to hold over us that this rat might be about to bite a baby in its crib. It’s weird that that’s in a Disney movie.

ADAM And that the rat is unerringly drawn to do this. It’s not an accident.

BROOM That’s right. It slinks out from under the circus poster wall, and gives Lady a look as if to say, “I’m going to bite the baby now! Try and stop me!” But back to what I was saying: dogs don’t really need to be around to protect human babies.

ADAM Nana did.

BROOM That’s true. Well, I don’t know what that means either. Anyway, the movie didn’t really seem to have anything to say about one way of living or the other; it seemed to be saying mostly that dogs are cute. Also, as far as messages, wasn’t the message for kids really that if you’re going to have a younger sibling, don’t worry because your parents will still love you? Don’t run away from home.

ADAM Also just that kids are great, and kids override everything; it ends with a shot of babies and puppies. And those puppies and the little baby were pretty cute.

BROOM The baby was not cute in the sequence where they built up to it. “Let’s see the baby! Here he is, the little star-sweeper…” and then they pull aside the blanket and you see this badly drawn baby as part of the background, with no life in it.

ADAM That was not good. But I meant in the last scene. They have this pale blue wash, which they also used for little Michael’s eyes, which is really cute.

BROOM Beth, as the person here most susceptible to puppies, did you feel like the succession of seven shots of puppies in the pound tearing up was effective?

BETH Not on me. Was it effective on you?

ADAM Kind of! I felt like, “Oh my god, we should go rescue these – bracket beautiful breed dogs unbracket – right away!”

BROOM Yes. Their babies would have just looked like dogs, instead of a bunch of female Ladys and one male Tramp.

ADAM Well, yes.

BROOM The eyes were much bigger than before. The baby eyes got a real ratchet up in this movie.

ADAM Now, you laughed at me for saying that the Tramp is kind of hot.

BROOM I just laughed because I already knew you thought that.

ADAM But you can’t understand the movie unless not only do you understand that the other dogs think he’s hot, but you actually have to think it yourself a little bit. You have to think that he’s hot and that she’s appealing in a non-sexualized but beautiful way.

BETH It’s like the song “Uptown Girl,” by Billy Joel.

BROOM I thought of that too.

BETH Except that Billy Joel is not hot, and has never been.

BROOM And Christie Brinkley is not so demure as all that.

ADAM And one problem I always had with this movie is that Cockers are a really unpleasant breed, in real life. They look bedraggled. So I had trouble seeing Lady as authentically appealing.

BETH It’s the dog that most seems to have flowing long hair like a woman.

ADAM I guess they thought a poodle would be too coquettish and French. I suppose today she would be a Golden, or a Lab. I think of Cockers as a fifties breed. Who has those anymore?

BETH My parents’ next-door neighbors do.

ADAM Are they old ladies?

BETH At this point, yes.

ADAM My grandparents had this succession of poodles that would, like, get bedsores, and they were horrible. That’s how I think about that variety of long-haired little dogs. Anyway, you have to know, to understand the movie, that Tramp is sexually attractive to Lady, even in her sort of proto-sexual way, in a way that Jock and Trusty just aren’t. You’re supposed to be creeped out that they’re proposing marriage to her. What is that supposed to solve, anyway? I didn’t get that.

BETH It’s so that she could live with them, in one of their houses.

BROOM I thought it showed nicely that even if you personally want her to keep living in this protected environment – in an old person’s home, essentially – you still feel, with her, like, “okay guys, but I’m not going to marry you. I would still rather be with the hot guy.” These movies just get more and more dialogue-y and less animation-y, which is something I imagine Bosley will object to. Yes, it had a couple of semi-action sequences, but it really was all about acting. The animation of character acting gets better and better, more elaborate and interesting. Both of the leads were very well done. And that scene with the spaghetti –

ADAM Is one of the great romantic images of the twentieth century. I just want to say that.

BROOM Yes. But because I hadn’t seen it since I had any kind of sophistication at all, I didn’t realize yet that people don’t just like it because of that image, but because the whole scene is played well. When you get there, it’s adorable because of the circumstances, which are absurd. Because of these ridiculous Italian guys. Is the restaurant owner not exactly the same guy as Stromboli?

ADAM “Ey, I make-a you pizza!”

BROOM “I-a break-a you face!” “E’s-a talk-a to me!” The amount of ridiculousness and unreality is just exactly right. And they aren’t really on a date, they’re just wandering around and he says, “hey, check this out,” and then something romantic starts happening.

BETH And that really is romantic.

ADAM And then the stars twinkle in her eyes!

BROOM When the stars twinkled in her eyes, that felt like going overboard. That’s how I felt about the whole movie. “Yes, there is something legitimately cute in there, but you’re gilding the lily.” I was trying to think of what to say about how far they went – that they were “bronzing the lily,” or “putting frosting on the lily.” The movie keeps picking things that have genuine sentimental value, and does it far better than an actual greeting card would do it, and then just goes too far. But I didn’t resent as being totally phony. It didn’t feel like Thomas Kinkade, who’s selling an idea of coziness that isn’t actually at all cozy. This was actually cozy. It’s calculated, but by people who were trying hard to do a good job… at something a little bit tasteless.

BETH I thought some of the background transitions – where Lady would be in the garden and then suddenly in a terrible doghouse in the rain…

ADAM Or when the meat suddenly appears.

BETH I thought those were nice, and something we haven’t seen before.

BROOM There were a couple of fancy effects with the backgrounds. At the beginning, when he puts down the basket, it’s like a piece of the background – it’s a non-animated basket that moves against the background. And when he put down the newspaper, it was a like a painted newspaper rather than a cel newspaper. I thought that was cool.

ADAM You’re right, Beth, there were these storytelling tricks that they’re learning. Visualizations of someone’s thoughts.

BETH Kind of an Ally McBeal technique.

BROOM Some of those were a little bit jarring to me. When he says, “remember that big piece of meat?” and then it’s there in front of them, that seemed like an unprepared jump into the surreal. But I guess that was the one that introduced a whole sequence of them.

ADAM What did you think of the “Johnnie Fedora” sort of setting?

BETH I found it very charming and desirable. The opening shot of the snowy town was very cozy.

ADAM It’s like Whoville.

BROOM Like I said: they were definitely on the mark, and then they laid it on pretty thick.

ADAM There’s a lot of Victorian gingerbread on those houses. And there’s a lot of laundry hanging over the alleyway of the Italian restaurant.

BETH Yeah, it was a lot of laundry. But so what?

ADAM No, I don’t mind. But it was a little shimmeringly vague as to setting. “Where is this?”

BROOM That’s not a mistake, that’s intentional.

ADAM I know. It’s fine.

BROOM But kids don’t get anything out of things like that.

ADAM There was a lot of anachronism. Although I appreciate that dogs have been the same throughout history – it’s nice to know that dogs could scratch themselves back in the 19th century – but I don’t think people played “catch” with their dogs in 1895, or whenever this was.

BETH I think it was 1915 or so, because there were some motor vehicles.

ADAM Oh, you’re right. It was sort of just before the war. I appreciated the Yale jokes. Anything else to say? Emma will appreciate it if we stop now.

BETH It’s interesting to me that I did not remember this very well, even though I saw it many times as a kid. I guess that says something about it.

BROOM That’s what I was going to say just now. There’s just not that much meaning in this movie for kids. It’s just about coziness and sweetness. At least to a boy, that’s not the stuff of movies.

ADAM I was surprised at how much “training Lady as a puppy” there was before Tramp ever comes on the scene.

BROOM I was a little dismayed that it starts with ten minutes of whether or not she’s going to sleep in the kitchen. It reminded me of Cinderella starting with a lot of worthless “business.”

[we read the Times review]

BROOM So you want to see the Switzerland movie but not Nature’s Half Acre that was shown with Alice in Wonderland?

BETH I would see all of them, sure.

BROOM We didn’t say a lot about the music. Something about that tune in the incidental music that corresponded to them walking around the house was very familiar to me.

BETH It’s used in other places; it’s in other stuff from the fifties.

BROOM I think it’s approximated in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. But here it was one of the recurring themes. Jim Dear was whistling it. It was clearly owned by this movie.

ADAM “We are Siamese, if you please…” was higher than I remembered, and sounded more exotic.

BROOM It has a cute arrangement.

ADAM I think that Bosley’s opinion, though harsh, is not really inaccurate. There’s not anything in there that could really be disputed. It’s an uncharitable reading of it, but he’s entitled to that.

BROOM Overall, I was just impressed by the effortless confidence of it. I didn’t think that relaxed quality was going to settle in for a while yet. But it really has. It was as much “another Disney movie” as anything you would go see in the nineties.

ADAM It definitely has two or three elements that are, I think, as iconic as anything produced by Disney studios. The spaghetti, the Siamese cats…

BROOM And Goldie Hawn shaking her rump at us is also a pretty well-remembered image.

ADAM When you think of all of the dreck that is to come… I mean, I like Robin Hood, but there’s nothing in it that really flashes into my mind as distinctive. Maybe when he’s got the straw under the water? But not really.

BROOM Their job and intention isn’t necessarily to make icons.

ADAM Well it doesn’t hurt. Dumbo is chock-full of icons.

BROOM I think it’s in inverse proportion to how much the movie is just a dialogue movie, like I was saying. The more it’s plotted and normal, the less the images are objects in themselves. I have one other thing to say: This game of coming up with characters and just tossing them on the pile – the idea that “people just love being introduced to new characters, so let’s see how many we can get in there and give them each their sixty seconds!” – I’m very cynical about that when they do it now. And they did it here, but I thought they did a relatively good job. If you think back, we didn’t really spend any time with that Chihuahua; he only said one thing. They kind of pulled it off anyway. But it’s a dangerous game for them to start playing.

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January 11, 2009

S.U.G.A.R.P.L.U.M.

This is something that I thought of around Christmas but then forgot about until yesterday and didn’t actually make until today. So it’s less timely than it might have been. But when, really, would such a thing ever be truly timely?

I can’t even think of anything jokey to say about it. It is what it is. This is the silliest thing I’ve posted on this site on a long time.

Ho ho ho.

January 4, 2009

11. Det sjunde inseglet (1957)

written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

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Criterion Collection #11.

i.e. The Seventh Seal. As you can plainly see above. Why, one must ask, was the Criterion edition made from a version of the film where the original title cards had been replaced with English ones? That doesn’t seem right.

I feel much as I did about the Rilke. This is a thing of beauty but not redemptive. It does end on a vague mystical note of redemption, but that’s hard to swallow, I’m afraid, after this movie about the implacable reality of death and the desperate, hopeless illusions we use to try to fight it off. The meaning of life, I think it tells me, is to go on living, try to be good, eat strawberries, enjoy yourself, and help other people if you can. That’s all well and good. But that’s just in the negative space: the movie is principally about the struggle against death, and the answer is: you will lose.

I KNOW, MAN. I’d like to place a request for more cute babies and less horror-of-nothingness-while-being-burned-at-the-stake in my art, please.

I am not asking for the right to bury my head in any sand. I am already fairly dedicated to the elimination of sand; I don’t need some movie dustbusting on me.

Really: I am not espousing escapism over relevance and substance. I want relevance and substance. In fact what I am saying is, to me, in keeping with the philosophy that art has a social obligation. What you put in your art is what you are putting into society. So why fatalism? Why try to lower that temperature when it’s already freezing cold out there?

Fear of death is not a social ill, a cause that can benefit from public airing, Dickens-style. It is simply the essence of human sadness. You can choose that as your subject but who’s going to want to watch that? People starved for candor, I guess. I for one am not starved for candor on this subject.

But who is, truly? Who out there can learn from this movie? Nobody is going to recognize themselves in the flagellants or the witch-burners and realize their error. Nobody is going to be surprised that, yes, man is mortal. Isn’t it a little self-congratulatory for us to say that this movie is profound because we’ve imagined it inspiring philosophical epiphanies in some flimsy straw men? What about me? Where’s my epiphany, Ingmar? We’re all of us that knight in the movie, fighting the good fight. Well, guess what-all he gets out of it.

YES. I KNOW, DUDE. And so does Ingmar, at this point.

I guess art like this serves not as a lesson or even a statement, but as a conversation-starter, which I realize is a ridiculous coffee-table term for what I mean. Casting this material into poetry and film and placing it in front of people gives them a way in on it if they need one, and gives them cues to explore it. I’ve just been there already. Haven’t most people?

Or: a movie like this is meant to be a comfort because it is a commiseration. If you look out your window and see this, fear not, for you are not alone. But I don’t buy that justification. I the individual say, “I am afraid of death.” A comforting, commiserating work of art would say “We all are. But that’s why you at least don’t need to feel alone.” This movie, on the other hand, says, “Afraid of death, eh? Here’s a story about a man who was afraid of death. He died, of course.”

I must acknowledge that the film, because it is thoughtful, makes space to address some of what I’m saying here. The film was inspired by a real medieval painting on a church wall, and within the film we actually see the cynical squire (representing me) asking the painter (representing Ingmar Bergman) why he paints death and disease on the wall instead of nicer things. Here’s his answer. You tell me whether or not this is satisfying:


1: Why all this daubing?
2: To remind people of death.
1: That won’t make them any happier.
2: Why make them happy? Why not scare them?
1: Then they won’t look at your picture.
2: Yes, they will. A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.
1: If you scare them…
2: They’ll think.
1: …then they think.
2. And are still more scared.
1: And fall into the arms of the priests.
2: That’s not my business.
1: You’re only painting your picture.
2: I paint life as it is. Then folk can do as they like.
1: That makes people angry.
2: Then I paint something funny. A man must live. At least till the plague takes him.
1: The plague. Ugh!

That’s fine as dialogue, but I want my artist to be coming from somewhere higher than that.

The painting that inspired Bergman was relevant to him but also quaint. But this movie is not quaint to me, so it needs more than a quaint justification.

And perhaps that’s my problem – I was reluctant to see it as quaint. Even though in nearly every respect other than subject matter it makes clear that it is something small, gentle and homey. Maybe the problem is simply that I am personally too afraid of death to savor this movie, which was never meant to be felt to the bone; just held in the hands and tasted like a piece of bread.

This was a lovely poem on the subject, rich and humane and satisfying to look at. But it’s a downer, and, being very much with it and feeling it insisting that I look annihilation in the eye, I kept having to ask why.


I’m writing this very raw as I think it. A couple of hours interval after the above I have this to say: I would have felt it was more wholesome if it hadn’t reached the ending. The conception of the knight, forever questing and resisting, and his squire, doing his cynical best to remain engaged with earthier things, was rich and gave me food for thought because it was about ways of living; ways of contending with the knowledge of death. If the film had ended while they were still alive, the moral to take away would have been about life. But the end of a film is the answer to a film. A story that begins is already teasing us with the question of how it will end; a closed narrative is at least as much about where it is going as it is about what happens on the way. A story about a man who wants not to die, but in the end dies, is not a story about living. Whereas the stories of our actual lives are indeed stories about living.

You can say: “The movie is exactly like life, in that the point is not where it’s going, because that’s a foregone conclusion; the point is what happens on the way there,” but if you say that, I disagree. Because what happens on the way there? Some scenes and vignettes relating obliquely to the question of the meaning of life and the inevitability of death. The drive of the film, the mechanism that makes it go, is simply a drive toward death, with the brakes on to no avail, as scenery goes by. I need to see life as more than that.


The central event of the plot, such as it is, doesn’t make philosophical sense. The knight saves the young family by distracting Death at the moment that they flee. This, we are led to understand, is the “one meaningful act” he hoped to make. But what can this act possibly represent? Doing good for others, obviously, but if that’s all we were to understand, shouldn’t the knight have, say, saved the witch’s life instead of just walked away and let her burn? Done some social good in the face of the crazed medieval culture of cruelty? Seemingly, the act of knocking over the chess pieces to buy the happy family some time to sneak away from death is supposed to represent something more specific than mere “good,” but in fact it can’t really represent anything. One’s chess game with Death is a completely personal affair, and Death’s attention is everywhere at once. Misdirecting Death so that someone else can sneak away simply makes no sense. If the Death of this film is the Black Death, the plague, there’s no saving another by getting the disease yourself. So what has the knight actually done, with his one meaningful act? It seems like a phony moment of drama, one that requires us to reduce the visual metaphor to a literal fantasy.

Which, incidentally, is how I very much wanted to watch this movie when it was shown in high school. A guy playing chess against Death is cool, right? But I ended up frustrated by the movie because it absolutely refuses to be watched as a ghost story.

Really, what it needs is to be seen as both at once. We must be thinking of “man vs. death” and also of a knight from a fairy tale up against a spook in a cape. It is allegory, but not pure enough allegory to actually watch as allegory. And it certainly can’t be watched as a story. It wants interpretation on levels that shift constantly. I find that very difficult. Perhaps a movie like this needs to be watched even more than the three times I gave it before one gets good at playing along with it. Well, that’s a lot to ask.

Commentary by Peter Cowie was smart and pleasant enough for what it was.

Soundtrack by Erik Nordgren – no, never released or rerecorded – is, like the film, rather theatrical in approach. Mostly made up of very short cues for transitions. The only longer pieces were heavily sound-effected up, so here’s the 24-second Main Title. Dies Irae!

January 4, 2009

Beethoven: Sonata for Piano No. 7, Op. 10/3 (1798)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Opus 10 no. 3: Piano Sonata (No. 7 in D major)

composed: 1796-8 (age 26-7)
published: 1798
first performance: unknown – surely in Vienna c. 1797-8.
dedicated to Countess Anne Margarete von Browne

111. #11.

young-beethoven.jpg
Here he is, in as young-looking a portrait as I could find. I don’t know the provenance. This may not be a completely authentic image, and the age portrayed may not be exactly 27, but my intent when I put portraits on here is just to offer an aid to the historical imagination, and I think this fits that bill nicely. I can readily imagine this young fellow being escorted into the salon where I’m attending a little party of the very rich, sitting at the pianoforte, and playing something brilliant. The talk of the town!

Admittedly I’m sort of picturing a 19th-century Proustian salon rather than an 18th-century Viennese one, but the principle is similar. I imagine. Maybe it’s not.

This piece: A piano sonata, and an early piano sonata, so a work that I might well have known from my childhood practice of starting at the beginning of the book and playing through until I got bored. But I think I skipped this one most of the time, or it never made much of an impression. I was familiar with what it looked like when glanced at on the page, but much less so with what it sounded like.

Listened to it a whole bunch of times, played it a whole bunch of times, then listened to all of the recordings in a row and called it done.

This is a fine piece. The first movement is neatly put together. The first time I put my hands on it, it seemed a little clonky, but all the transitions of tone have come to seem quite charming and elegant now that they’re in my head. The form of the exposition is a little rounder and more thoughtful than it seemed at first – the descending four-note motive became a lovely icon of goodwill once I was put on to it, and the whole movement now seems to me like a clean little piece of public speaking on the subject of those four notes: soft enough for a general audience, with jokes etc. And short.

The second movement is weepy rather than profound, but a nice rich weepiness, if the pianist is good. Ahead of its time – or a model for things to come – by a decade or more. Each episode adds something. These sort of movements (song-like, with several refrains and several episodes) tend to feel too long to me, but this one doesn’t, at least not now that I have the refrain under my belt. As always, being able to sing along makes all the difference.

Delicate decoration in Beethoven often seems to be etched with a stiff hand. I guess most of Beethoven seems to be etched with a stiff hand. But the underlying sturdiness prevails, once you get past the surface and find your way to the heart of the material. That means many listens. In this case I was able to get there rather more quickly, 1) because it’s a short and straightforward piece, and 2) because it’s a piano piece and I was able to play it myself.

The minuet is so exactly and entirely of the type – the type being Beethoven piano sonata third movements – that it is hard for me to think of it as having its own personality. But maybe that’s a misplaced priority anyway. The type is an excellent type. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Just went and listened again to remind myself. Actually it’s very distinctive, in several different ways over the course of the movement. The problem is not that the material lacks character in itself – it has plenty of it, very satisfyingly so – the problem, and it’s no problem at all, is that the overall effect is the same as any other minuet movement. The amount of charm + grace + humor + lightness = 1. The components can vary but the sum must be the same. Perhaps this is the definition of “genre?” Well, not quite. One wants individuals within a genre to be distinguishable. Of course, this is entirely distinguishable – it’s just my memory of it that has a hard time tearing it away from its parent class. Prior to typing this paragraph my inclination was to say that that’s okay, and I still agree – that’s okay.

Fourth movement, dramatic pauses, an L.v.B. specialty. Just listened to it now – I’m feeling fairly in touch with my musical self right now as I write this, so it seemed like a good time for one last visit – and suddenly I feel like I understand the wherefore of Rondo form. Previously I had thought of it just making sense the way stripes make sense – because they keep coming back, alternating with each other. Now in this piece I can hear the obvious lapse into looseness in the episodes – the jazz between the refrains – and a dynamic of charisma and showmanship becomes apparent. Of cool, almost. Especially in the extremely satisfying forward impetus of the second section of this refrain – like a bird in flight – bursting out of the dramatic pause section, which is like a little playacting. A different kind of cool, but still recognizably a form of being cool; the performer/composer is offering up a lively personality, rather than just a lively piece.

Beethoven gets credit for bringing the individual into music, for setting down the foundation stones for a century of Romanticism – but what if we try not to think about the 19th century vibe and just construe his emphasis on the individual as an emphasis on himself, on his charisma? To me this seems fruitful – it’s second nature from our living pop music culture. (Which you could say is also Romantic but that’s stretching the notion of Romanticism – to me, “Romantic” suggests Doré and does not suggest Madonna.) Madonna’s songs are all about how Madonna is singing them. It certainly gets pointed out that technical virtuosity was built into composer-performers’ works as a way of showing off, but I’m not sure I’ve read very much about the actual personality of the work being part of the public personality of the performer.

To hear the fifth symphony as emanating from within the scowling bust of Beethoven is a different thing, a necessarily historical thing. I’m talking about Beethoven writing piano pieces so that when he sat in front of an audience and played them, they would be impressed by their encounter with this man and this performance, rather than with this music per se. Just like at a Justin Timberlake concert – the material has been composed to serve a very particular purpose. This is obviously the case with Liszt and his imitators, but a lot of that music never gets played anymore, whereas Beethoven gets played all the time but fairly divorced from a charisma-informed tradition. Or, when it is within a charisma-informed tradition, it’s the charisma of the performer, who might well not have a congruent charisma to Beethoven’s. Thus the “meaning” of the piece is lost or abused, a square peg shoved into the round hole of the museum-respectful silence and the jacket with tails and all that.

A certain (no names, please! it’s the internet!) renowned professor of mine in college was particularly known for his Mozart interpretations, and I had to agree that he had a particular knack for getting at the soul of Mozart at the piano, when I saw him do it in person – and the reason was that his charisma was, one felt, very much congruent with Mozart’s. One felt that this man with this personality would indeed have wanted credit for the personality on evidence in the music – not credit for the ability to sniff out and deliver that personality, like an actor, and like so many “great performers” – nor credit for being “good lord, the great Mozart incarnate,” though I don’t doubt he had a bit of a taste for that – but credit for the same degree of sensitivity, the same intelligence and elegance, the same turns of phrase, the same dumb jokes, as Mozart the man would have. It’s easy to say, “well, wouldn’t we all,” but no, I daresay we most of us wouldn’t. My own personal ideal for how people will perceive me is nothing at all like the music of Mozart, nor of Beethoven for that matter. Sometimes in fact I have let myself muse on the question of whether I would want a given piece of music to “represent me.” No clear winners yet but I’ll let you know. Certainly myspace users agree that identifying yourself with a piece of music is a good way of projecting a kick-ass image. Myspace users and everyone else I know.

Why is our culture so obnoxious and superficial about identity formation? In “High Fidelity,” Nick Hornby, or John Cusack, says “What really matters is what you like, not what you’re like.” I think part of the point of the book/movie is that this is less true than the character believes, but I’m not totally sure. “High Fidelity” is certainly popular with people who are cozy with that idea as expressed. So let me just put on record that, no, it’s not true. What really matters is what you’re like. People who are proud of what they like want to believe – and want others to believe – that they are like what they like. But one glance at the D&D convention should have put that idea to rest long ago. Yet still we go on smugly listing our favorite bands, like it will save us from anonymity and mediocrity. It won’t! To possess something is not to resemble it. I said once that I would write about this someday. Maybe that’ll still happen.

The point here is that if you’re a composer/performer, you can lay claim to the idea that you are the music with more clout than if you just have it playing on your myspace page. This is why rock stars get, as they say, all the girls – the illusion that they are what they sing is much stronger when they write it. And when they actually sing it. Not clear why Beethoven didn’t get all the girls – it might be because of the particular image he chose to project. It might also be because he was a jerk to everyone. Liszt obviously had the girl-gettage routine down pat.

beethoven-op10-3earlyed.jpg
Early edition but not the first. The first said “pour Clavecin ou Piano-Forte” on the title page. I can’t find a better picture of it than this.

The score, in various editions.

David Dubal just gives listening recommendations for “The Complete Piano Sonatas”:

Arrau: Philips 432301-2
Schnabel: EMI Classics CDHH 63765
Kempff: Deutsche Grammophon 429306-2
Ashkenazy: London 425590-2

but I sure didn’t listen to those, because they weren’t currently available at the library the day I went looking for this piece. I listened to Murray Perahia, 1985; Emil Gilels, 1980; Maurizio Pollini, 2002; Artur Schnabel, 1935. They were all perfectly fine as I recall, but Schnabel’s interpretation seemed to me to get inside the music’s head the most convincingly. Oh, so, wait, I did listen to one of the recommended recordings, didn’t I.

The 1001 Classical Recordings list doesn’t include this piece.

More than seven months passed between drafting this and posting it!